Monday, July 11, 2022

All You Need Is Love?

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'All You Need Is Love?'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

A major feature of St Luke’s Gospel that distinguishes it from St Matthew and St Mark’s Gospel, with which it otherwise has much in common, is the journey that Jesus begins in Luke chapter 9 verse 51. St Luke writes:

‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ (Luke 9:51)

Jesus in obedience to his Father undoubtedly did journey to Jerusalem, where he was to be handed over and crucified. St Luke, however, also uses the journey as a literary device to structure this section of the Gospel. Lasting until chapter 19, it is a section that contains a lot of material only found in St Luke’s Gospel, such as the parable we will be looking at later. As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, Jesus sends people ahead of him to prepare his way (Luke 9:52).

The journey begins on a negative note, with a Samaritan village refusing to welcome him (Luke 9:52-56). James and John are indignant, and they ask Jesus if he wants them to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the villagers. Jesus, however, rebukes James and John, and they go on to another village.

The reaction to Jesus is by no means all negative, and there are those who want to join Jesus. Jesus is not looking for popularity, however, and Jesus makes clear to potential followers that following him is demanding and involves serious sacrifice (Luke 9:57-62).

While some make excuses, there are those who are prepared to meet Jesus’ demands. In fact, there are so many that Jesus is able to send out 70 (or 72; the manuscript tradition disagrees on the precise number) in pairs to go ahead of him to every town and place he intends to visit (Luke 10:1-12). This may seem a large number, but Jesus himself describes the labourers as few and the harvest as plentiful (Luke 10:2). Jesus’ followers need to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out workers into his harvest. Those Jesus sends ahead of him are to cure the sick and tell people that the Kingdom of God has come near (Luke 10:9).

Jesus’ rebuke of James and John at the start of the journey to Jerusalem may give the impression that if people choose not to welcome Jesus that is their choice, without them having to worry about there being consequences if they do not welcome him. Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case (Luke 10:13-16). Jesus says that places such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and even Capernaum, where Jesus has been based in Galilee, will suffer terribly for not having listened to Jesus and for not having repented. Jesus’ followers represent Jesus and how people react to them is as if they have reacted to Jesus himself.

When the 70 (or 72) return and report to Jesus how they have got on, they are ecstatic, even the demons are subject to them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17-20). Jesus tells them he has watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Jesus has given them authority over the enemy and protection from harm. They should rejoice, however, not at the power Jesus has given them, but that their names are written in heaven.

Nevertheless, Jesus is also pleased at how the mission of the 70 (or 72) has gone and rejoices in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21-24). Jesus praises the Father for hiding ‘these things’ from the ‘wise and intelligent’, while revealing them to ‘infants’. Jesus tells them that the Father has handed over all things to the Son. The Father and the Son alone know each other. Only those whom the Son wants to reveal the Father to can come to know the Father. Jesus then tells his disciples privately how privileged they are to see and hear things that prophets and kings had wanted to see and hear, but hadn’t.

This is the background and context to our Gospel reading, for it is immediately after Jesus says that the ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ has hidden things from the ‘wise and intelligent’ that one of the wise and intelligent stands up to test Jesus.

The ‘lawyer’, that is, an expert in God’s Law, asks Jesus what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life’. The person, then, to whom Jesus will tell the story we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t ask his question so much because he wants to know the answer, but to see if Jesus does. The lawyer is an authority on God’s Law, so Jesus asks him what the Law says. The lawyer knows the answer to this question perfectly: to love God completely and your neighbour as yourself. Exactly, replies Jesus, if the lawyer does this, he will live.

The lawyer now looks a bit foolish. He knew the answer all along, and his motive in asking the question has been exposed. So, to save face, he asks, ‘But who is my neighbour’? All Jews would understand the need to love God completely: ‘heart, soul, strength, and mind’. Every good Jew recited this command from God’s Law (Deuteronomy 6:5) twice every day as part of what is known as the Shema. Having asked a question, the lawyer already knows the answer to, in an attempt to catch Jesus out, the lawyer asks a follow-up question to justify having questioned Jesus. Who is his neighbour that he must love as himself?

The lawyer probably thought he knew the answer to this question as well. The command itself is also from God’s Law (Leviticus 19:18). His neighbour would be anyone who is a fellow member of Israel. The lawyer, however, is in for a shock. Sadly, we know the story that Jesus tells in answer to the lawyer’s question so well that we don’t share in the shock, and because we think we know the story, we are in danger of missing not only details in the story, but its message to us today.

Jesus says that a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This would have been a road that Jesus’ hearers knew well. It is one of my favourite roads today! But in Jesus’ day, it was a dangerous road where robbers would prey on travellers. The journey was about 18 miles, and it really did mean going down: from about 2,600 feet above sea level to about 825 feet below it.

We are not told the ethnicity of the man, but the assumption is that he is Jewish. The man falls into the hands of robbers who not only take all that he has but beat him up so severely that he is left dying on the roadside. First, a priest comes by. You would think this was good news. Surely a priest of all people would stop and help? But no, the priest passes by on the other side. We are not told what was going through the priest’s mind, as that is not a concern in the story. Secondly, a Levite also comes down the road. A Levite was one who worked in the Temple assisting the priests. He also passes by on the other side. Again, we are not told his thoughts in doing so. But then thirdly, a Samaritan who is travelling in the region comes to the place, and, when he sees the man, he is moved with pity. As is well-known, there was real animosity between Jews and Samaritans at this time. In St John’s Gospel, St John writes of an occasion in Samaria when the disciples had gone to buy food, leaving Jesus alone at a well. Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. She is surprised at Jesus speaking to her, and she says to Jesus:

‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (John 4:9)

St John then adds, by way of explanation, that Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. Feelings ran deep!

The Samaritan in Jesus’ story, however, doesn’t just feel sorry for the man, he pours oil and wine on the man’s wounds to clean and soothe them, before bandaging them up. The Samaritan then takes the man to an inn where he nurses him. The following day, the Samaritan gives the inn-keeper money to take care of the man telling the inn-keeper that when he comes back, he will pay the inn-keeper whatever extra it has cost. This is quite clever, as it provides an incentive to the inn-keeper to look after the man, knowing that there will be money in it for him if he does.

Having told the story, Jesus asks the lawyer a question. Remember what the original question was that led to Jesus telling the story in the first place. The lawyer asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus now asks the lawyer:

‘Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ (Luke 10:36)

The lawyer’s framing of the question implied that there were people who were not his neighbour. The lawyer’s focus was on deciding who the neighbour was that he should love. Jesus’ question is who became a neighbour to the man in need. The lawyer answers:

‘The one who showed him mercy.’ (Luke 10:37)

Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.

All you need is love?

Jesus tells the lawyer that if he keeps the two commandments, to love God completely and his neighbour as himself, he will inherit eternal life. So, with these two commandments is Jesus in effect saying that ‘all we need is love’?

Here in St Luke’s Gospel, it is a lawyer who identifies the two commandments with Jesus agreeing with him. In St Matthew and St Mark’s Gospel, it is Jesus himself who identifies them. In each case, Jesus approves these two commandments as a summary of God’s Law, describing them in St Matthew’s Gospel as the two great commandments. We read these two commandments at every Eucharist at Christ Church. Although we are happy with them as a summary of the Law, when it comes to the detailed commandments of the Law that they summarize, there are many commandments we think we no longer have to keep.

We don’t worry, for example, about wearing a garment of two types of material, even though God’s Law commands us not to (Leviticus 19:19), and many of us like to eat prawns and similar types of seafood, even though God’s Law forbids us to do so, describing such food as detestable (Leviticus 11:9-12). These are strong words, but we are happy to ignore them. We don’t insist on men being circumcised if they want to join the Church, even though God’s Law says that no male can be part of God’s people unless they are (Genesis 17:9-14), and we don’t stone people caught in adultery, even though God’s Law commands us to do so (Leviticus 20:10). We have, in other words, basically abandoned most of God’s Law, even though we are reluctant to admit it.

So, does abandoning the Law mean that anything goes? It seems that St Paul was accused of teaching a version of this (Romans 3:8). If we don’t keep God’s Law, how is human behaviour to be regulated? It used to be said that Christians are not under an obligation any more to keep the civil and ceremonial parts of the Law, but that we still have to keep the moral law, basically the Ten Commandments, or more accurately the nine commandments, as very few think it is morally wrong to work on a Saturday

In the past, it was the Ten Commandments and not our Lord’s summary of the Law that were read at the Eucharist. Our liturgy still makes provision for us to read the Ten Commandments if we want to. While Christians may have drastically reduced the number of commandments from the Law that they believed they had to keep, it was still felt that there were specific commandments that should be kept, even if it wasn’t totally clear why.

A major change in churches in recent years has been that the Ten Commandments are no longer read in our services, and the Summary of the Law is read instead. The timing of this change was, I think, significant. It was a change that occurred less for religious and theological reasons and far more for social and cultural ones. As people in the West in the last century abandoned traditional religion and the morality that went with it, the mantra in the Church, as well as outside it, became ‘all you need is love’; not rules and regulations, just love. Our Lord’s words about loving God and loving your neighbour came to be seen not so much as a summary of the Law, but as a replacement of it. Out with rules and in with love!

What is disturbing is that having convinced people in the Church that God wants us to serve him by living according to love and not by obeying commands, we now neither serve him by loving nor obeying. Love itself is interpreted as doing what you think best in any given situation, and best is normally interpreted in terms of what is best for me.

The command to love your neighbour as yourself is even interpreted as a command to love ourself, as, it is argued, you can’t love your neighbour as yourself unless you first love yourself. I totally understand that there are people who don’t love themselves in the sense of having a totally negative, even destructive, self-image. This, however, is not the case for the most of us. The problem for most of us is not that we don’t love ourself, but that we do love ourself, first and foremost. The message to those who hate themselves is not to tell them to love themselves, but to help them to see themselves as loved by God. The result of our present preoccupation with ourself is that we are so busy loving ourself that we forget all about God and our neighbour.

To focus on loving ourself misses the point that Jesus is making. We generally don’t need any encouragement to love ourself; it is something that just happens naturally. The whole point of the commandment to love our neighbour is that it is based on the assumption that we do love ourself, in the sense of caring for ourself and our needs. Given that we do, Jesus is saying that we should care for our neighbour in the same way we care for ourself. Jesus is not concerned here with the image we have, either of ourselves or of others, but with our actions.

Love, St Paul writes, is the fulfilling of the Law (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:8-10; see also, James 2:8), not its abandonment. What the Law with its various commandments was seeking to achieve is fulfilled when we love God completely – heart, soul, strength, and mind - and when we love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

God’s Law expressed God’s guidance for every aspect of a person’s life: what they wore, ate, said, and did as well as who they could and could not have sex with. No area of life was excluded from God’s Law because God was not to be excluded from any area of life. The Law wasn’t given to be onerous or burdensome; it wasn’t given to limit life or to prevent people from enjoying themselves or to stop them from living a full life, it was rather an expression of God’s love for his people.

We often see ‘love’ as the alternative to Law. The Law, however, was itself all about love. God’s people were to love God by keeping his Law because God’s Law was an expression of his love and care for them. They loved because he first loved them by giving them his Law. The Law showed them how to love.

Now Christ has come, we are still to love God completely and to love our neighbour as ourself, but the way we do it is different. We don’t look now to God’s Law to guide us, but to God’s Spirit, who is given to all those who have faith in Christ. St Paul writes that in serving God those in Christ are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Romans 7:6).

Fulfilling the Law doesn’t mean being set free from serving God in all we do, it means instead a renewed commitment to do just that. St Paul again writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

The two commands to love God completely and our neighbour as ourself together sum up what God’s Law was all about. Under the Old Covenant, a person loved God completely and loved their neighbour as themselves by obeying the commands of God’s Law. This was how they were to know what the will of God was. Now, under the New Covenant, we love God completely and love our neighbour as ourself by being led and guided by the Spirit as our minds are renewed and we present our bodies in worship.

This doesn’t mean that the way the Spirit leads us is unpredictable and that the Spirit’s leading always varies from one situation to the next. There are some things that are always incompatible with the Holy Spirit’s leading. St Paul describes these as ‘the works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19-20). Equally, there are some things that are evidence of the Holy Spirit’s leading and, again as St Paul puts it, ‘against which there is no law’ (Galatians 5:22-24).

The problem is that for many people, being free from God’s Law and the command to love mean freedom to do as we want, as long as we do it ‘out of love’. I am now of the opinion that the word ‘love’ has become so sexualized and self-centred that, as a word to describe what God wants of us, its use is highly problematic. The trouble is that it is hard to find another word to use instead, especially given how established the word love is. So, while we have to go on using it, we need to remember that the command to love is not a licence to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sin is real and some things will always be sinful. No longer being ‘under Law’ does not change that. St Paul asks:

‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?’ (Romans 6:15)

He answers emphatically, ‘By no means!

Sin remains objectively definable and real; there are some things that are always wrong.

Just Do It

When the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, the lawyer was testing Jesus to see how Jesus would answer. Jesus, as we have seen, turns the tables on him by asking the lawyer what God’s Law says. The lawyer becomes the one being tested, and he gives the right answer: love God completely and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus tells him, ‘Do this, and you will live.’

Then, after the lawyer has correctly identified the one who became a neighbour to the man who was robbed, Jesus says to him, ‘Go and do the same.’

The lawyer knows what he should do, now he has got to do it. The problem is, of course, that left to ourselves, we can’t do it. We are given the Holy Spirit to enable us to do it. But even then, it isn’t just going to happen. Having been given life in the Spirit, we need to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). St Paul writes to the believers in the Church at Philippi:

‘… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:12-13)

‘Walking in the Spirit’ is the way to fulfilling the Law. What the Law pointed to, we now do - or at least we should. What the Law was saying to God’s people was that love of God and love of our neighbour should characterize everything we do. The way we do this now is not by following rules and regulations (the old way), but by following the leading of the Holy Spirit (the new way), but we still need to do it. We still need to love God completely – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and our neighbour as ourself.

I say this because having decided we want to live by love not by Law, we have come to see ourselves as free from having to worry about what we do. Instead of our commitment to ‘love’ resulting in a greater devotion to God and our neighbour, it has resulted in a greater focus on ourself. Freedom from the Law does not mean freedom from serving God. [As I sought to explain in the podcast, ‘Freedom in Christ’, for the Second Sunday after Trinity.]

If we walk in the Spirit, we will seek to love God completely and love as our neighbour as ourself. I think, like the lawyer, many of us know this in theory. Doing it, however, is something else. It is tough and demanding, not helped by the way we regularly compartmentalize our lives.

What I mean by this is that we understand ‘loving God’ to refer to those things that are religious in nature. So, we equate loving God with attending church services, reading our Bible, praying, and church activities in general. Loving our neighbour, we see as being about such things as giving to charity or helping someone who is in obvious need, perhaps someone we know who is in hospital, for example. This then leaves time for us to love ourself by doing what we want to do for ourself. Now, if we divided our time in this way, it would at least be a step in the right direction. Most of the time, however, we don’t even manage this three-fold split. Even so, it is not what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus told the story of the Samaritan because the lawyer had a question about who his neighbour was. Jesus didn’t have to explain what loving God was all about; all good Jews knew that. Loving God was not confined to activities that were religious in nature, such as praying and going to the synagogue, but involved every aspect of a person’s life: what they ate, what they wore, how they raised their children, harvested their crops, organized their communities - nothing was excluded. God was to be a part of everything they did. That is still what it means to love God; the way we do it now may be different, but we still need to do it. St Paul writes that we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices which is our spiritual worship. He is telling us we should present everything we are and all that we have and do to God as a continual act of worship. St Paul writes to the Church at Corinth:

‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)

It is not that some things are God’s, some things our neighbour’s, and some things ours: everything is God’s. This means that loving our neighbour is also part of our love of God. St Catherine said that as we cannot see God to love, we love him by loving our neighbour. We love God and our neighbour, not separately, but concurrently.

The way we are to love our neighbour is by becoming a neighbour and to become a neighbour is to show mercy. There is a problem for us in understanding the story Jesus told the lawyer. The reason that Jesus told a story about a Samaritan showing mercy is that the lawyer wanted to limit whom he showed love to. Jesus challenged his prejudices about people and the restrictions he placed on who he reached out to.

We know the story and, in theory at least, would not limit who we think we should help. Instead, we place limits in other ways. We limit when we help. The story Jesus told the lawyer had to be a dramatic example of someone becoming a neighbour to make the point to him, but, as a result, we now think of being a neighbour in terms of helping people in dire need of help like the man beaten and left for dead by robbers.

Jesus’ message, however, is that we should love our neighbour by becoming a neighbour and showing mercy to whoever needs mercy, whenever they need it. By becoming a neighbour to someone in need, we make that person our neighbour. It could be someone lying on the road after a heart-attack and in need of emergency first-aid. It could just be someone at work who is feeling sad and lonely. We should not limit who we are merciful to, the situations where we show mercy, or the times when we are merciful.

What Jesus teaches in today’s reading, then, can be summed up in two common sayings: ‘all you need is love’ and ‘just do it’. But what Jesus means is very different to what is commonly meant. All you need is indeed love, but that means that we need to give ourselves completely to God and to others, and just doing it means relying on God for us to do it, not just occasionally but continually, every moment of every day.

‘Do this’, says Jesus, ‘and you will live.’ And so, he tells us, ‘Go, and do likewise.’


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